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Believe it or not, Collingwood aquarium pitched in the 90s

A 'world-class' aquarium proposed in Collingwood died in the wake of the Adscam sponsorship scandal of 1999
A model of the aquarium proposed for Collingwood's waterfront in the 1990s.

Before Ripley's Aquarium held water in Toronto, there was a thought swimming around in the mind of a Collingwood resident to bring a "world-class" aquarium and research facility to the shore of the former shipbuilding town. 

While there was a bit of swimming upstream on the part of the proposal team to get the local council on board, ultimately the project went belly-up, in part because of a federal government scandal. 

In January, 1996, an aquarium project was proposed to the council of the day by Glenn Chessell, a Collingwood resident and aquarium and shark tank builder, and the Barrie-based group called the Canadian National Aquarium Conservatory. Estimated at $93 million, Chessell said it would be a good fit for Collingwood where the tourist attraction would be a big fish in a small pond, compared to one of many options in a larger city. 

One of the articles printed in 1996 when the aquarium was first pitched to council.

Chessell told council at the time there was corporate backing for the project from companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Westinghouse and Sony, and that the project only required the donation of waterfront land. He was eyeing the land formerly owned by Canada Steamship Lines (known now as the Spit). The team with Chessell promised the facility was “a lot more significant and meaningful” than a marine theme park like Marineland. 

Chessell, now 67, still lives in Collingwood and still thinks an aquarium would have been “the ticket” for the town. 

“I thought it was going to be great, and it would have been,” said Chessell in an interview with CollingwoodToday

The proposal described in archived articles from the Enterprise-Bulletin included a phased approach that would ultimately end with 200,000- to 250,000-square-feet of floor space that housed 57 galleries, 49 displays, and 63 exhibits as well as research space, a theatre, conference facilities and a gift shop. For reference, the Ripley's Aquarium of Canada in Toronto is 135,000 square feet of floor space.  

Those pitching the idea said it would create 1,200 full-time jobs in the area, with 130 of those in the aquarium. 

By March, 1996,  The Connection reported the town had formed a steering committee to consider the idea of a public aquarium and aquatic research facility in Collingwood.

The steering committee did include members of council, the chamber of commerce, the tourist association, service clubs, and the Canadian National Aquarium Conservatory. At this time, Chessell told council there were other municipalities vying for the project and the conservatory was giving each community the “chance to sell themselves.” The optimistic timeline indicated shovels in the ground by the summer of 1997. 

In July, 1996, Collingwood council voted in support of a preliminary report from the aquarium steering committee recommending the town make “serious efforts to attract a large research aquarium.” 

Speaking on behalf of the steering committee, Peter King told council the aquarium had the potential to draw one million visitors to Collingwood, and bring an economic benefit between $50 and $100 million in spinoffs for the local economy. The steering committee recommended council support the project and offer space on a “nominal lease basis.” 

King also let council know the town would be on the hook for the cost of environmental and feasibility studies. 

A map showing the proposed location for the Collingwood aquarium and research centre.

During the July meeting, council agreed to commit six acres of town-owned land on the water, east of the Spit, for the development of the aquarium. Some councillors were hesitant about committing the land and also to paying for the lots to be backfilled and serviced for water and sewer, possibly at a cost of $1.5 million.

For a while in 1996, it looked like a competition between Collingwood and Owen Sound to win the favour of the Canadian National Aquarium Conservatory as the chosen site for the aquarium. However, in September, Owen Sound officials announced the city was dropping its bid. 

However, Collingwood’s proposal would still have to pass muster with the conservatory, even though there was no bidding war. 

At the end of 1997, the Enterprise-Bulletin ran an article saying the project was “still alive” and that the proponent was seeking funding partners for an independent feasibility/marketing, socio-economic impact study and economic model. 

A project brief from 1999, preserved and kept by Chessell, provides a “walk-through” of the aquarium proposal detailing five floors of exhibits including: 

  • a display on the Canadian wetlands; 
  • a “coast-to-coast-to-coast” Canada marine display with an octopus tank and eel tank; 
  • coral reef displays; 
  • a tortoise to alligator exhibit; 
  • a laboratory for research in areas such as veterinary, husbandry, marine medicine, surgical materials for people, cancer research, alternative energy sources, fish population, and etc.; 
  • a shark tank with walkthrough tunnel; and
  • a prehistoric exhibit with life-size models of marine dinosaurs

The largest tank in the aquarium would be the shark tank. But it wouldn’t have been the first shark tank in Collingwood. Chessell used to take care of a 900-gallon shark tank in one of the Cranberry buildings. 

On the ground floor of the aquarium would be a family restaurant, promenade, and access to the Collingwood marina. 

Chessell said there wasn’t a lot of support from town staff overseeing the project file at the time and he said council sided with staff instead of the steering committee. 

“Council never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” said Chessell in an interview this week. 

The Canadian National Aquarium Conservatory hired a lobbyist working in Ottawa with the goal of getting government funding for some of the cost to build the facility. But that move proved fatal for the project. 

The lobbyist they hired was one of the people charged with fraud in the Jean Chrétien government’s sponsorship scandal, which began to come to light at the turn of the millennium. 

The scandal revolved around a federal fund of $40 million a year to be used to raise the profile of the federal government in Quebec when referendums were showing dwindling support from the province to remain part of Canada. Some of the funds were funnelled to the Quebec federal Liberal Party and much of the money went to one ad agency without proper competition, according to an Auditor General report. Multiple people were charged with fraud as the scandal came to light. Chrétien resigned. 

Not wanting to be connected to someone who was in jail for fraud, the group pitching the aquarium disbanded. 

“Everybody seemed to go their separate ways and stop communicating altogether,” said Chessell. “It ended right there. I blame myself a lot, I did not pursue it. Even though I know there were other people interested, people with deep pockets.” 

He became ill and was no longer able to take an active role in pushing the aquarium. 

It’s a project he still thinks would work in Collingwood, and he’d like to see someone else pick up the torch that went out in 1999. 

Meanwhile, council is still working on plans for the waterfront area close to where the aquarium was proposed. Several condos are planned along the site of the former shipyard and many more have been built.

Later this month, council will be hosting an open house for the Collingwood Terminals project plans, which will include presentations from the developers Streetcar and Dream Unlimited.

The “public unveiling” of the plans for the former grain terminals will be on Monday, March 27, at 5 p.m. in the town hall council chambers. 

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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